“Stress increases levels of cortisol, which at high levels is toxic to the brain—in particular to the memory-consolidating hippocampus which is one of the first structures to be assaulted by Alzheimer’s disease.” The End of Alzheimer’s, Dale E. Bredesen, MD.
Today’s brief science lesson: The hippocampus is located deep inside our brains. It is the part of our brains responsible for, among other things, our short-term and long-term memory storage. As I discussed last time, stress kills cells, all different kinds of cells throughout our body, and a key component of those cells is their telomeres. Telomeres are the protective end caps of our chromosomes—think the plastic tip of a shoelace. Telomeres are found in every cell throughout the body. The longer and stronger our telomeres are, the higher functioning our brains and minds will be, and the less our body will decline and age. The telomeres in our hippocampus cells are involved with memory. Shortened telomeres are found in people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. I know this is a lot of information to take in, but I want to set the stage for future discussions about exciting new research which can help us slow down the destruction of these two very important aspects of our physical selves.
In a previous post I talked about how stress and cortisol can shrink our brains and damage our memories forever. Now for the really, really great news: there are several ways to not only stop this happening, but reverse it and improve our brains, our memory functions, and our entire bodies. One of the most important is….exercise.
Exercise has emerged in the last few years as so much more important that we previously thought. The smart folks are saying that every neurologist should be prescribing exercise to their patients before they write a script for anything else. We are animals that were born to move—use it or lose it, the saying goes, and that is proving so very true. I will come back again and again to the smorgasbord of benefits of various types of exercise. The list is long, and getting longer. For our hippocampus and its attending telomeres, aerobic exercise is the answer; vigorous aerobic exercise at 60% of our maximum capacity—the level at which we are breathing somewhat hard, but can still hold a conversation. Your personal 60% will depend on your fitness level, and as you become more fit, it will shift up. Forty-five minutes, at least three times per week, and our telomeres will be healthy-- in our brains and throughout our bodies.
And, here is the even better news: High-intensity interval training (HIIT) stimulates the birth of brand new hippocampus cells. When we rev up the intensity of our workout to our maximum capacity at regular intervals for 20, 30, or 40 seconds, followed by a periods of recovery, our hippocampus receives a message which forces it to adapt and grow to accommodate the onslaught of energy. Our ability to remember improves, our cognitive functions improve, and our lives improve. The response in our muscles and our brains causes a short-term stress response and from this, new cells are created. (An example of when some stress is good for us!) HIIT training is not something to enter into lightly. As older adults, we must gradually build up our capability, even if we have been exercising regularly. The safest way to add HIIT into your workout is to talk with a fitness professional—at your gym or the Y. The trained staff there can help you put together a sensible plan. But—MAKE SURE you speak with a trainer who is trained to work with older adults!!! Ask the necessary questions to find the trainer who understands your needs.
Over the last two weeks, watching the finest athletes compete at Winter Olympics will, I hope, inspire you to get moving-- it did me, and those amazing women and men reminded me to get in my aerobic work! The myriad of other gifts from doing regular aerobic and HIIT exercise will keep for another day, but know that by lacing those tennis shoes onto your feet and doing the work, you have the capacity to drastically slowdown your aging. Now, just go do it.
Until next time...Be vibrant!